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The Tall and Short of It

Panicum virgatum 'Northwind'
Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’

Working outside in my garden today, I noticed how the sun sat lower in the sky, casting long shadows through the trees onto the lawn and down the driveway. Long shadows can only mean one thing. Summer is in its homestretch. Autumn is around the corner. The weather has finally decided to stop showing off its prowess, and is becoming more amenable.

Temperatures are no longer oppressive, at least not today. And while most of the garden is starting to look a little fizzled out, some other plants are just beginning their performance on the garden stage. Of all other plants, no one would argue that the ornamental grass in bloom is the harbinger of autumn.

Of course, ornamental grasses do not really bloom in the sense of a flower as we know it. But they do have what is called an inflorescence, that magical, smoky puff that seems to dance at the slightest hint of a breeze. In general, ornamental grasses have much to offer a gardener. Ornamental grasses are hardy, distasteful to deer, and drought tolerant.

They are also captivating by offering an element of movement, softness, and grace to the garden. Ornamental grasses engage different senses; they are enchanting to watch as they move, their soft inflorescences are irresistible to touch, and when the wind blows, the rustling of the grass is at once captivating and comforting, whispering its secrets to all who venture by.

In general, you cannot go wrong with planting a native grass. As with any plant, be sure to water newly planted grasses weekly until they are established. But once your grasses are established go ahead and get yourself a glass of iced tea, because there will be little or no care on your part. You will not need to fertilize or worry about pests. Supplemental water will probably not be necessary (I have not watered any of my grasses so far this year). You will only have to remember to cut the grass in late winter about six inches from the ground, before the new grass blades begin to grow.

Although some of the most widely used grasses in gardens today are not native, there are many native grasses to choose from. Unlike grasses that are not native to our region (such as Miscanthus and Pennisetum), native grasses are beneficial to wildlife. Many seed-eating birds, such as song sparrows, purple finches, and American goldfinches, love to perch on the thin strands of grasses, plucking away at the seeds. Ground-feeding birds, such as dark-eyed juncos, white-throated sparrows, and Eastern towhees, will happily flock to your yard to scratch the ground in garden beds filled with native grasses.

In fact, more than 20 species of birds rely on the seeds of native grasses to provide them with nourishment throughout the winter months. In addition, non-cultivated varieties of our native grasses are host plants to the skipper type butterflies. Without native grasses, our skippers would simply vanish.

There are so many beautiful native grasses to choose from. Ranging from less than ten inches tall to over six feet tall, there are native grasses that would suit nearly any gardener. Here are some that I enjoy growing in my garden.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’
Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’

By far, the most popular native grass is switchgrass, Panicum virgatum. This grass is popular for good reason. It begins blooming early in August and continues to look fabulous through most of the winter. Its inflorescences consist of numerous tiny seed heads that look like puffs of tawny smoke. Its grass blades tend to stay upright and the entire grass gives an appealing softness to the flower border. The native species is quite beautiful and needs no embellishment, but why stop there. Breeders have introduced many varieties of switchgrass that offer different colors, sizes, or even structures.

Some of my favorites include the following. ‘Dallas Blues’ and ‘Heavy Metal’ both have steely blue grass blades. ‘Dallas Blues’ has maroon seed heads and can grow to five feet, while ‘Heavy Metal’ is more compact and grows to about 4 feet tall with tan seed heads. By contrast, ‘Red Ribbons’ and ‘Shenandoah’ sport reddish grass blades with either maroon or tan seed heads. Both are lovely and would look stunning with other maroon flowers to bring out their reddish foliage. Other cultivated varieties include names like ‘Northwind’, which can handle strong winds and stay upright, and ‘Cloud Nine’, which has extra long seed panicles.

Panicum virgatum 'Dallas Blues'
Panicum virgatum ‘Dallas Blues’

Whichever variety you choose, you cannot go wrong. All are magnificent border specimens. So why not go ahead and try a few of them. Switchgrass looks great mixed with other grasses and with late blooming flowers, such as asters, black-eyed Susans, and Joe Pye weed. Try a combination of ‘Dallas Blues’ with goldenrod, New York ironweed and black-eyed Susan

Little Bluestem and Indian Grass

Two other tall native grasses worth mentioning and that are great additions to the autumn garden are Indian grass, Sorghastrum nutans, and big bluestem, Andropogon gerardii. Indian grass is a beautiful plant with wide green foliage. Its inflorescences are exquisite, its bronze seed heads intermingle with golden dangling seeds that look like petals, or to me resemble tiny dangling gold earrings. The combination of the fluttering yellow ‘petals’ with the feathery bronze seeds is stunning.

Schizachyrium scoparium, Little Bluestem
Schizachyrium scoparium, Little Bluestem

Give Indian grass some room, as it will spread and form a clump about three feet in diameter. Its foliage does not stand quite as tall as other grasses, and does not stand straight up, but rather weeps in soft flowing arches. However, when in bloom, its seed heads stand straight up and can grow to over five feet tall.

Big bluestem is also a winner of a grass and a superb addition to the easy care garden. This grass boasts silvery blue foliage and can grow from three feet tall to an astounding nine feet tall. However, big bluestem does not display its full splendor until autumn, when the seed heads and the grass blades turn a brilliant coppery orange. This grass forms a clump that can grow to more than three feet in width, so be sure to place this beauty toward the back and give it some room. In addition, its seed heads turn into a silvery fluff, which adds to the dramatic effect of this captivating grass.

Moving toward the shorter end of the spectrum, another native grass that is a favorite of mine is little bluestem. Although its botanical name is a mouthful, Schizachirium scoparium, little bluestem is a bit more diminutive than the typical ornamental grass, staying a petite 24 to 30 inches tall without trying to overrun its neighbors. However, its mannerly behavior belies its character, for in autumn the diminutive little bluestem turns from a light blue to a warm nectarine before finally turning a soft dusky tan in winter.

This grass is truly beautiful in all seasons of its growth. Emerging late in spring, its foliage stays a silvery blue through summer. Sometimes the tips of the leaves are marked with shades of maroon or purple. In autumn, it sends up shoots of tan seed heads which, just like its cousin the big bluestem, turn into puffs of silvery fluff that glow against the backdrop of its apricot foliage.

Throughout winter, the entire plant mellows into a warm beige and holds its foliage upright through snow and sleet until finally laying down for a rest in late winter. Since little bluestem is such a stunning plant, I recommend planting it in groups of three, five or more. This plant really adds interest to the autumn garden when grouped with other native grasses and late blooming flowers, such as goldenrods, blazing stars, and asters. There are a number of cultivated varieties of this grass as well, with names like ‘The Blues’, ‘Prairie Blues’ and ‘Carousel’. All are great additions to the late season border.

Purple Love Grass

Another short native grass is called purple love grass, Eragrostis spectabilis. This grass is unusual in that it is very compact, only growing to a foot tall and wide. I typically use this grass in the front of the border, and since it does form a neat mound, I have used it as an edging plant. Its foliage is also a little different than most grasses, being that it has wide green fronds that stand erect, making the plant look like a little, round, green porcupine.

However, in fall, there is no longer any reason to poke fun at this little grass. By September, purple love grass sends up numerous tiny purple seed heads that completely envelope the plant in a purple cloud. No wonder it has a name like purple love grass. You simply can not help but fall in love with it. This little wonder looks fantastic in a border with some New York ironweed in the background, where it will bring out the purple hues throughout the garden bed.

Sporobolus heterolepis, Prairie Dropseed
Sporobolus heterolepis, Prairie Dropseed

There are many more native grasses to choose from. All are unique and offer exciting and appealing characteristics to the fall garden. Be sure to check out the Baysafe tags when shopping and pick out a variety of native grasses. They are all worthwhile garden plants which are easy to care for. But most of all, these grasses care for our native wildlife and will bring you new butterflies and birds to your yard.

By Natalie Brewer, Master Gardener

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